Here at Food Republic HQ, we try not to lose sight of the fact that New York City may be the center of the universe, but there are some of other people out there doing stuff. Which is why when grilling season hits, we cast our gaze beyond the South, beyond Texas and consider how other cultures char their meat over flames in the great outdoors. (See our Illustrated Gallery: Grilling Around The World.) And this, in turn, is why we invited Jet Tila to Soho House in Manhattan’s MeatPacking District (synergy!) to talk about something he knows better than almost anyone: Thai grilling.
Thai what? Like many of the most awesome food countries in the world, Thailand has a rich tradition of making things more delicious by grilling them, so we turned to Tila, who once took Food Republic on an Epic Thai Town Crawl in his hometown LA, to help us tell our larb from our nam prik. In town to plug his collaboration with Kikkoman, coincidentally a video grilling series and to teach some morning show hosts how to make drunken noodles, the affable Tila set us straight on Thai regional cooking, what meat goes on a Thai grill and then he threw in his favorite wok hack.
How is the grill used in Thai culture?
My family’s from Chiang mai. There’s two popular regions in Thailand that are known for their grilling. There’s the north, where there’s Chiang Mai, and then there’s Isaan, and that’s northeastern, very close to Laos. I think Isaan barbecue is the best grilling in Thailand. It’s all hard charcoal, and it’s a combination of marinated meats like grilled pork jowl and homemade sausages. We also have what’s called jerky. If you took pork or beef, marinated in fish sauce, garlic, salt and fermented it, hold it that way and then when you’re ready, either grill or deep-fry it, that’s Thai-style jerky.
Is it always direct heat, or indirect?
Thai grilling is always hard coal, direct-heat grilling. Either whole slabs of meat or skewers. Or giant whole rounds of sausages.
What about chicken?
That’s in central Thailand if anything. In the north we have buffalo, pig. North, you have Thai barbecue chicken paired with papaya salad.
Any side dishes cooked on the grill?
In the north, your side dishes are always gonna be sticky rice. A cold salad — either papaya salad or cold meat salad like larb. It’s always the salty protein with the cooling vegetable, which is usually salad. And then the starch, which is always the sticky rice. These three are always eaten in combination. You would rarely ever eat meat or protein by itself. The vegetable will be the reprieve from the spice since that’s cooling, and the meat’s gonna be more salty, sweet, garlic and not really spicy. The spice is always going to be the dip.
What about fish?
Central Thailand. If you follow the Mekong up and down, fish usually spit roasted. Either slow–spit roasted so the skin is edible or you char it to the point where the skin blackens and you tear the skin off. Then you eat it that way. The third way is to grill off the freshwater fish, flake off the meat and make a yum salad. Grilled fish larb is underappreciated.
Would a Thai chef ever put vegetables on the grill?
The only vegetable that’s grilled and turned into something is the long eggplant. In Thailand we have two primary varieties of eggplant: round eggplant, which is either the cherry or the Thai green; and the more Chinese species, the long one. We’ll take the eggplant and grill them, blister them, char it, scrape the inside out and we’ll make our version of babaganouj, because you actually take the eggplant meat and mix it with things to make a dip. We call that num prik, which translates to chili dip.
What’s a barbecue gathering like in Thailand?
The barbecue in Thailand is used as a cooking implement more than a gathering function because it’s so bloody hot already. It’s a method of cooking. It’s usually the only way to cook something, because in rural Thailand, even the pans and woks are pushed by coal. Grilled food in Thailand will usually signify the region of food that you’re eating. You know for sure: grilled pork jowl, you’re eating northeastern Thai.
What would you drink with something like that? Singha?
Yeah, F- Singha! Here’s the new shit. Thai people are all about whiskey and mixers. If you hang out in Thailand, it’s about drinking whiskey-soda, whiskey-Coke, whiskey-water. If you wanna be OG Thai, you would do a whiskey-Coke on the rocks and eat that with your barbecue — and get really red-faced because we’re all allergic to alcohol.
Any grilling tips before we finish up?
A really good dude tip is to take a large chimney starter, get that thing stoked until the coals are white-hot and use that as a wok burner. Guys are always scrambling to find enough BTU’s to push a wok; that’s the best wok burner I’ve ever used. When you are trying to do stir fry and you can’t quite get what they call “the breath of the wok,” that semi-burned beautiful smoky taste, it’s usually because home stoves are pushing 9,000 to 16,000 BTU’s, 30 if you’re lucky and you have a pimp-ass burner. Take a large charcoal chimney starter, load it with briquettes, stoke it and when those coals are white-hot, you send the round-bottom wok on the chimney starter and that serves as the best, most economical wok burner you can buy.